At the press conference, Igor fielded all the technical questions: yes, apart from its internal fittings and the load, the supply ship was identical to the one we would be travelling in; the point of the supply ship was that if we took two years’ supplies in the crew ship it would have to be bigger than anything so far built; yes, MSF-1A and MSM-1 would together cover all our needs for two years; a second identical ship would launch next week as a backup. (Nobody asked him how much money MSM had made out of carrying stuff to the Moon on the prototype last year, but I happen to know it was a lot.)
We, on the other hand, got the tough ones. As the crew’s American, Beau bore the brunt: how was he feeling about leaving Earth forever?; was he scared?; had he been keeping his crowd-funding supporters briefed?; what was it like working with a bunch of foreigners? (really); would he be seeing his mom and pop before he left?; was he still feeling faz? (that one got a good laugh); did he have any words for the people of Seattle?; did he have any regrets? Looking terminally cool in a dark suit worn with characteristic swagger, he dealt with all of these superbly: it’s a fantastic chance to be part of the greatest journey of our species; no; if you’d supported me you’d know the answer to that; we’re a great team – I couldn’t ask for better crewmates; sure; [smile]; the people of Seattle, and the whole Pacific Northwest, have made me strong enough to do this thing, and many have provided the funds too – they’re awesome; no.
The women, inevitably, got all the crass questions about how they’d take care of their hair and whether there was special space makeup and would they have enough privacy and… you know the sort of thing. Meena, in the sari again and looking smart, answered the questions without trying to hide her lack of enthusiasm for them. The least sexist question was whether she had a message for the people of India, to which she said, “Well, there are over a billion and I hardly know any of them. But I hope they see this mission like I do: for humanity, not for any country.” After that she got no more questions.
Undaunted by Meena’s laconic answers, the assembled mob started to put the exact same questions to Kimi. In a smart mid-blue trouser suit I hadn’t seen before, she was far less emollient: curt and direct variations on “I hope my crewmates will value me for what I do, not how I look”. This wasn’t to the journalists’ taste, and they quickly finished with Kimi.
Being neither an American nor a woman, nobody was much interested in me. The only question I got began by addressing me as Captain, and I interrupted the journalist to put him straight. I don’t think he ever completed his question. Being neither an American nor a woman nor the captain, there were no further questions and the answers I had prepared about how I was feeling and how my family was taking it – I was the only one leaving kids behind, after all – went unused.
Then Igor drew it to a close with, “I am so proud of this crew, which has been selected by a rigorous process for a mission of vital importance to our whole species and continues to surprise us with its strong performance during training. I’m sure there are deeper questions your readers and viewers will want you to ask if we have another press conference. I appreciate this conference was at short notice… my mistake. So I will announce the next one in good time so that your outlets can send their science correspondents. Thank you ladies and gentleman – we’re going to Mars!” If I’d been one of the journalists I’d have felt thoroughly ashamed. Which probably means I’m not cut out to be a journalist.
I threw myself into Week 4 with a sense of relief at being out of the public eye, give or take the ever-present camera crews. These we were slowly learning to ignore. Well, not ignore because their presence constrained our language and our actions. Accept, maybe.
The Tuesday was spent learning to drive the buggy. There were two available, and I managed to pair up with Kimi. I hoped that by working together for a day we might start lowering the barrier between us.
We worked in the rear parking lot, behind a sight screen. In line with the philosophy of using or adapting off-the-shelf products where possible, the vehicles – painted in the sort of reflective yellow you see on some police vehicles – were based on a legendarily tough Japanese pickup truck. Or so we were told. I couldn’t see it myself.
The cab had gone above the waistline, leaving only a windscreen, doors and a bench seat. Locks and other anti-theft devices had been removed, obviously. In place of the rear window was a tough-looking metal plate. (Todd explained that, in 40% gravity, friction would be less but mass would be the same, so the danger of a load sliding forward under braking was much greater.) The dashboard moulding was clearly from a production vehicle, but there were many blanks where gauges, controls and the ignition switch had been removed, and scars where others had been added without regard to aesthetics… I welcomed the sense of priorities. The bonnet had gone, exposing the engine bay which now contained a bunch of batteries and not much else. The tyres were of the beefy kind you see on off-roaders. It was only when we got round to the rear that it looked like a regular vehicle. With reassuring confidence, the manufacturer’s name strode across the tailgate in capital letters in a way not seen on current models. I guessed that MSM was making money out of the prominent branding.
We learned about charging and replacing the batteries, loading and securing large items, weight distribution, controls (very simple), routine maintenance, troubleshooting and issues to consider when parking (which would be outdoors). Only then were we allowed to drive. Which we did, in turns, taking just minutes to show that we could go forwards, backwards and round obstacles (traffic cones) with reasonable ease.
When we came back from lunch a course had been laid out in the parking lot and a race was declared. We lined up away from our buggies, Todd parped an airhorn and we ran towards the vehicles. Having seen Kimi’s competitive instincts when we were sailing, I let her drive. So we leapt aboard – the rules required both team members to be in the vehicle throughout – and Kimi executed a blistering, wheel-spinning start. Except she didn’t. The vehicle didn’t respond.
We leapt out again and went into the fault-finding routine we had learned. I glanced across and saw that Meena and Beau had been sabotaged too. We took a little longer than them to find the disconnected battery terminal, so they – Beau driving – had a lead into the first corner. It was an exciting nip-and-tuck race for the first two laps, with Kimi edging ahead of Beau several times but not by enough to win the next corner. But her continuing pressure eventually forced him into a mistake at the last corner, and as he went wide she darted through into the lead. On the next lap he nearly passed us twice, but by the fourth and final lap Kimi had opened an unbridgeable lead which she extended steadily for a comfortable win. Beau congratulated Kimi graciously.
And the cameras – three crews today – loved it.
Then Todd delivered the kicker: that wasn’t the race, that was just practice. The real race came next, and we must swap drivers. So it was Meena against me. This time we would start in the vehicles, which Todd assured us had not been tampered with since the previous run.
I thought it was going to be a decidedly more sedate affair, but when my hands grasped the wheel and the visor on my helmet clunked down the adrenaline surge came. We squealed away from the line and were side-by-side into the first corner. I had the inside line and should have come out in front, but Meena outbraked me and went into the lead. From there on our raw aggression matched that shown by the other two, even if our racing skills decidedly didn’t. Meena botched the next corner and I took a slight lead. But she got it back at my next mistake, which wasn’t long in coming. Kimi was bouncing in her seat with frustration as she coached me on when to brake, when to turn in, when to get the power back on. It must have worked because I regained the lead half way through the third lap and looked like I’d keep it to the end.
But then Kimi shouted, “Look at the battery gauge!” We were in the red zone …